Notes From the Lawn

Photograph by Jennifer König


We preserve old buildings, why not old landscapes? Transplanted horticulturalist JESSICA FRANCIS KANE discovers a mysterious garden outside time’s realm in Greenwich Village.

Here are some things I know about the corner of Houston and La Guardia in Greenwich Village: There is a row of three black and desperate-looking honey locusts along the north wall of a Starbucks that someone is intentionally poisoning with salt. I first read about this crime (truly, it’s called arboricide and is punishable with jail time and fines of up to $15,000) last year and now that spring is here you can see that the trees have survived but are certainly not thriving. I do not know if the culprit was apprehended. I do know that the honey locusts align very neatly beneath the blank side of a building used as an enormous advertising billboard. Were the trees to grow tall, they’d obscure, well, at the moment, his and hers ads for French Connection.

The northwest and southeast corners of the intersection are anchored, respectively, by a chrome-heavy diner called Silver Spurs and a Mexican restaurant called Dos Caminos. I haven’t eaten at either, but in front of Silver Spurs one evening I remember running into a friend of mine who does not usually see me with my children. I had the two children, a stroller, a diaper bag, a backpack, two lunch bags, one stuffed leopard, a couple of coats, and my own bag filled with a laptop and books. “Where are you going?” he asked, incredulous.

“Home,” I said. I guess he thought it looked unlikely, but we made it eventually. It just took time and patience.

Another problem with the Houston/La Guardia intersection is that the buildings on the south side of the street are turned toward Soho, and on the north, toward the Village. Houston, in this stretch, suffers from an identity problem. Are you in Soho or the Village? Are you shopping with a fabulous handbag or going to class in flip-flops? Last year the city widened Houston so it is three lanes in both directions with a raised median in the middle. The median is planted with pear trees and liriope and at several of the crosswalks there are benches. Why someone would want to sit in the middle of Houston is not clear to me. If it is for the infirm or the elderly to rest while crossing the street, I can think of several more effective pedestrian policies, including lengthening the time allowed for crossing the street, that would help them more. If it is to beautify the city and reclaim green space wherever we can, then I think the landscape designers are applying theories with their eyes closed.

When we look at a bit of recovered landscape, it’s hard not to think about the whole history of people showing up and ruining everything.But the reason I’m writing about this corner at all is because in the northeast corner there is a garden called Time Landscape. It was first proposed, according to the historical marker, by Alan Sonfist in 1965, then after much research (and community debate, no doubt), built in 1978. It is meant to be a “living monument to the forest that once blanketed Manhattan Island.” Sonfist and community organizers took a 25’x 40’ rectangle and planted it to show the three stages of forest growth that thrived here before settlers and skyscrapers. The south end contains the grasses, birches, beaked hazelnut, and wildflowers of a young forest. There’s a small rise here, the kind of thing you want to call a hillock. The center features a small grove of beech trees, and the north end is supposed to be mature woodland with oak, white ash, and American elm. The ground covers listed on the historical marker include mugwort, Virginia creeper, pokeweed, aster, and milkweed, but this plaque also lists Guliani as mayor, is badly faded, and about to fall over. For the record: Bloomberg is mayor and the healthiest ground cover I can see is a layer of violets.

We preserve old buildings, why not old landscapes? I love the idea, but have been troubled by its execution since I first started walking by this garden over a year ago. At first I thought it was some kind of guilty reflex. We can look at the last wood-frame house in Manhattan (corner of Hudson and West 11th) and marvel that people once made houses that way, but when we look at a bit of recovered landscape (particularly a neglected recovered landscape), it’s hard not to think about the whole history of people showing up and ruining everything.

It’s not fair to say the garden is neglected. There is a woman who cares for it, but I don’t know her name. She’s about 5’4”, 60-ish I would guess, and has a determined demeanor, like most serious gardeners. Once she saw me watching her and she asked if I had time to help. I didn’t say no, but I looked down at the stroller, the children, the lunch boxes. She nodded. “I remember,” she said. “You’re busy.” But when I see her getting water from the fire hydrant, tying up saplings, planting flowers, moving rocks, I am not at all sure that I’m busier than she is. Who is? This is backbreaking work and she does it alone all year long.

A bit of wilderness this small doesn’t make a lot of sense.So why doesn’t the landscape work better? Why isn’t it a more compelling place? (I think it is for her sake that I care.) Certainly the presentation is poor. You can’t sit in the garden and you can’t sit outside it because there are no benches anywhere and it’s hard to see from the one in the middle of Houston. You have to stand on the sidewalk and stare through the locked fence, which, for some reason, perhaps having to do with the pace of New York or maybe a societal association with chain-link fencing, feels illicit. You can read the historical marker, which is a nice, vacation-y thing to do, but when you realize that it describes a landscape that is twice gone, you start to feel sad. Turn around and look at the advertisements looming above those doomed honey locusts, billboards that are frequently changed and always up-to-date, and you might wish you hadn’t stopped to notice any of it.

A bit of wilderness this small doesn’t make a lot of sense. We’re trained to expect a piece of land this size to be planted with flowerbeds or at least contain a dog run. It’s neither public space we can enjoy nor private space we can’t see. Trash blows in, the leaves drop and rot, one of the cedars had a hard winter and is leaning precipitously over the fence. The other morning I noticed it was bowing even lower than usual and that a man’s necktie had been draped over a branch. There was a squirrel nest and a tattered plastic bag up there, too. Maybe the Time Landscape was too constructed and the lot as it is now is returning to its more natural, 21st-century state. A monument for our time.

Many people believe New York University will take over this corner some day and that the school’s building plans will eliminate the Time Landscape and the community garden next to it altogether. I don’t know if this is true. I do know that the community believes the university would tear down the Washington Square Arch if it would give them 10 more seats at graduation. Does the woman who cares for the Time Landscape worry about its end? What is she thinking when she comes with her rake and her shovel, her work gloves and her watering can? There is no shed here; she leans her tools against tree trunks. She sometimes puts in plants that are not consistent with the original vision—daffodils, tulips, grape hyacinth—but who could blame her? There’s not even a place for her to sit when she’s done.

On the next street over there is a sign I like asking for help with the upkeep of another garden. It reads, “Anyone interested in donating time and/or labor…” and there is a number to call. But what would donating time look like, I wonder, if it didn’t also imply labor, as the sign seems to suggest? I suspect money was meant to be one of the items, but I like it better this way and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Time Landscape woman, whom I’ve seen working here too, had a hand in it.


TMN Contributing Writer Jessica Francis Kane’s first novel, The Report (Graywolf Press, 2010) was shortlisted for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize and was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. Her story collection, This Close (Graywolf Press, 2013) was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the Story Prize and was named a Best Book of the year by NPR. She lives in New York with her husband and their two children. More by Jessica Francis Kane